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2016 K-League Challenge: Ones To Watch (Part 1 - Goalkeepers)

Photo courtesy Korea Joongang Daily

Although the K-League Classic kicks off this weekend there are still a couple of weeks to go before the second-tier matches get underway so just to whet the appetites of Challenge followers I thought it would be worthwhile highlighting some of the key men in the league who are likely to have an important say in who makes it up to the Classic in 2017.

With many Classic clubs cutting their cloth to suit their reduced budgets Challenge clubs have seen an opportunity to pick up domestic players that might previously not have considered the step down and foreign imports that normally might have been given a chance in the Classic. 2015 also showed that bigger clubs are keeping an eye on talent who impress at that level and many of the star names from last season have moved on to pastures new for 2016.

Names like Jonathan, Japa, Cho Suk-jae, Cho Won-hee, Lee Jung-hyup, Lee Yong, Sisi, Rodrigo Parana and Almir (ok maybe not that last one!) have all left the league during the close season for one reason or another and it'll be interesting to see who will step up to take their place this time around.

For this series I plan to take a look at each of the four areas of the park and highlight some names (both new and old) that will be worth keeping an eye on in the coming months (especially if you happen to be a Japanese or Chinese scout). For now we will start with the goalkeepers.

Despite the huge number of goals that were scored in the Challenge last season the standard of keeper in the Challenge is pretty high with a good mix of experienced older heads and young up-and-comers across the division. It's a pretty tough decision to pick out the ones likely to shine in 2016 but I've highlighted three names that will no doubt make a big difference to their respective teams.

1. Kim Young-kwang (Seoul E-Land)

I still balk slightly at the idea of using the name, but the man they call 'Glory' was worth a handful of points to E-Land by himself last season and I see no reason to think things will be different this time around. Ten years ago Kim was regarded as the 'next big thing' in Korean goalkeeping and when he moved from Jeonnam to Ulsan for a reported $2.2m he had the world at his feet...or hands in this case.

Although he managed 16 full caps for Korea he never quite hit the heady heights expected of him but, for my money, he is still one of the best goalkeepers in the K-League. At 32, he's still in his prime and his reactions are second to none. As last year's FA Cup match at Ulsan proved he's also equally adept at taking penalties as he is at stopping them.

2. Lee Chang-keun (Busan IPark)

Despite spending most of his career in the shadow of national team goalie and club captain Lee Bum-Young, 22-year-old Lee Chang-keun has made steady progress in establishing himself as a first-teamer in what had been a struggling Busan side. With the exit of the elder Lee to Japanese football the stage was set for Lee Jr to step up to the plate and play a key role for Busan's promotion push.

Throughout the close season there were persistent rumours that Lee would also leave, with Ulsan Hyundai apparently the most likely suitors, but it looks like Busan have done enough to persuade him to stay. Lee was a key member of the Korean U-23 squad that lost out to Japan in the AFC Championship Final and perhaps the guarantee of continuing his development as a Number 1 was what swayed his decision to stick around.

3. Cho Hyun-woo (Daegu FC)

Cho was an ever-present for a relatively stingy Daegu backline last season and, while his performances went under the radar for a while, he eventually earned the rewards for his consistency by not only being named in between the posts for the K-League Challenge official team of the season but also earning a seat on the plane for the trip of Uli Stielike's national squad to Laos. He was unused sub for that match but the fact that he is on Stielike's radar tells you all you need to know about his potential.

At 24, last season was really his first as a number 1 keeper even though he's been in and around the squad for a couple of years previously. He's also earned youth caps at international level so he has a reasonably strong pedigree.

These three guys seem like the pinch of the bunch to me although no doubt you might disagree. Suggestions, comments and arguments all welcomed below.

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